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What about the store?

On the south side of U.S. 160, where Eighth Street meets the highway, there stands a large pole topped by a metal frame that displays nothing but empty sky.

Yet, just a little more than a year ago, the pole held a sign emblazoned with the City Market logo. Then, the sign not only announced that groceries were available downtown, but that several other business adjacent to the City Market were open and happy to serve anyone who walked through their doors.

The sign was removed weeks after City Market closed. In short order, the shopping center emptied out as tenants leasing commercial space from City Market closed their businesses, leaving a large, abandoned building just west of the historic downtown core.

For over a year, vacant retail space and over an acre of parking lot sit as empty as the sign frame on U.S. 160.

It is a situation that continues to frustrate town officials and members of the Pagosa Springs Community Development Corporation (CDC), especially as the closing of the store occurred in the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression.

Immediately after Kroger (City Market’s parent company) announced last summer that it would be closing the downtown location, numerous local officials and area residents responded with letters of protest.

Most objections to the store’s closing involved the difficulty elderly, disabled and low-income downtown residents would have with grocery shopping, the loss of jobs and an uncertain future of the shopping center.

Those objections were for naught. Kroger representatives responded that the decision to close the store was “irreversible” based on internal market research that the downtown store was no longer profitable.

The store had been operating under the company’s banner since 1986. A larger store, located several miles west, was opened in 1997 and, according to Kroger officials, had drawn off enough downtown customers to make the older store unprofitable.

At that time, City Market President Phyllis Norris said, “After an examination of the marketplace in Pagosa Springs, we have determined that it can support one but not two City Market stores.”

Apparently, the decision to close the downtown store worked out well for Kroger. Last month, the Cincinnati, Ohio based company reported that net income rose 7.3 percent to $280.8 million in 2011.

However, the closing of the downtown store has not worked out as well for Pagosa Springs.

Soon after Kroger subcontractors gutted the facility, the company boarded up windows with large sheets of plywood. For many residents and local officials, the “boarded up” look (and spray painting the word, “Closed” on the wood) put an unfortunate pall on the overall appearance of the downtown area.

The plywood was removed more than a week after Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon voiced concerns over the decision to board up the empty store.

“It was so tacky, what they did,” Aragon said. “I couldn’t believe anyone in the corporate world would have made a decision to board up the store.”

Since then, Aragon said that Kroger representatives have not responded to correspondence from the town regarding other concerns over the vacant retail space.

“Basically, they have been uncooperative,” Aragon said. “They’re not dealing with us anymore.”

City Market spokesperson Kelli McGannon denied Aragon’s allegation, saying, “We have been in contact with the town manager (David Mitchem) several times over the past year, and we are committed to keep an open-ended line of communication,” adding that, with a 30-year history in Pagosa Springs, “It’s in our best interest to be good corporate citizens of the town.”

Yet, when Aragon and Mitchem (representing the CDC) visited The SUN offices and expressed frustration over Kroger’s apparent unwillingness to address concerns expressed by the town — especially seeming foot-dragging by Kroger in leasing vacant commercial space for new businesses or permission to use the derelict sign — they maintained that City Market had remained uncommunicative with town staff regarding the disposition of the town store and its attached commercial space.

According to Aragon, all communication with Kroger has been conducted through the town’s operating City Market store and that responses to concerns have been conducted by that store’s staff.

“To his credit, Rusty (Hector, the uptown City Market’s general manager) has been very cooperative,” Aragon said. “But I don’t think he does it because corporate is telling him to, I think everything he does is out of the goodness of his heart.”

For instance, Aragon said it was Hector who contacted vehicle owners, who had turned the closed store’s vacant parking area into an ad hoc used car lot for nearly a year, to have them remove the cars and trucks up for sale.

However, Pagosa Springs Police Chief Bill Rockensock told The SUN that City Market has an obligation to keep its parking lot (private property) free of abandoned vehicles, and it is up to town law enforcement to notify the company of the problem.

“It’s as if someone parks a vehicle in your driveway, without your permission, and tries to sell it. You just have it towed away,” Rockensock said.

Aragon also said that when weeds began to take over portions of the building’s exterior and throughout areas of the abandoned parking lot earlier this summer, Hector had the weeds removed.

Hector declined to comment, referring SUN staff to McGannon, but denied removing the weeds — a contention that McGannon supported.

“We’ve hired a property management company to address the condition of the building,” McGannon said, adding that it was in City Market’s best interest to keep the building presentable in order to market the commercial space.

McGannon added that City Market had made its parking lot available for several events held by local organizations.

Nonetheless, town staff has had to clean up trash and debris (much of it left by subcontractors after the store closed) collecting around the abandoned building. Trash receptacles left by City Market on premises were eventually removed by town staff after the store’s trash collection service ended, but town residents continued to deposit garbage in them. Several broken decorative planters were also removed by town staff.

Cosmetic considerations aside, the gaping hole of vacant commercial space remains a blight on a core downtown business area that struggles to survive, much less attract new businesses to the area.

“Quite frankly,” Mitchem said last week during his visit with SUN staff, “Kroger has not aggressively marketed that retail space.”

Mitchem also verified Aragon’s statement that numerous issues brought up by town officials regarding the appearance and disposition of the City Market property had gone unheeded.

“We’ve received no response on those items,” Mitchem said.

Unfortunately, when City Market vacated the space where the supermarket had resided, it also led to the departure of businesses in the building that leased commercial space from Kroger.

“When we got the news last year,” said Clancy Walter, daughter of Dorothy Griego (owner of Dorothy’s restaurant, a Kroger lessee). “Our lease was up in December and we asked if we needed to renew the lease or prepare to move. They told us, ‘You can move now.’”

Walter added that the two other businesses occupying the building had also been told that their lease had been cancelled and would have to vacate the premises immediately.

McGannon denied that tenants were forced out and said that City Market had tried to accommodate the previous lessees.

“It’s not for lack of effort on our part,” she said. “We really did try to work with them.”

However, McGannon said she could not discuss the terms offered following City Market’s closing.

“Not aggressively marketed,” might be an understatement on Mitchem’s part. In fact, the local Multiple Listing Service (MLS, a marketing database of available properties) does not list any of the downtown City Market properties for sale or lease.

However, McGannon responded that, “The building is currently listed with Sullivan and Hayes, a commercial development company that has had great success marketing retail space in Colorado.”

When asked why the building’s several vacant spaces had not been listed with the local MLS, McGannon said that it was decision made by Sullivan and Hayes.

McGannon denied that Kroger had any corporate policies regarding sales or leases to potential competitors, but when asked if the company would consider allowing a Safeway or Albertsons to occupy the space, McGannon said, “I can’t discuss something that’s hypothetical. All I can say is, we’re open to opportunities ... we want to do what’s best for Pagosa Springs.

“It’s difficult to find a suitable tenant in this economy. Obviously, we want someone long term, something financially viable who would serve the Pagosa community,” McGannon added. “Not many people are looking for retail space right now.

“Look, we’re not in the business of closing stores,” McGannon said. “We are actively seeking tenants for that building and if we can, obviously, it’s a win-win situation. It’s unfortunate, a casualty of economic times.”

However, to town officials, that “casualty of economic times” is symbolized by the large, vacant commercial space occupying a sizable portion of the downtown core. Furthermore, those officials fear that the vacant space also symbolizes to potential new business owners that Pagosa Springs lacks a thriving downtown and is not a viable location for considering a start up.

That symbol is evident in the matter of the old City Market sign. Now nothing but a rusting frame tattered with bare wires, the town hoped City Market would give permission to use the sign to announce community gatherings, sporting events or just general greetings.

Kroger representatives never responded to the town’s request.

McGannon said that she was not aware of the issue with the sign, but said she would be happy to discuss the matter with town officials.

Yes, it’s just a sign. However, it is a sign that, in the face of economic struggles, local officials fear announces a town closed for business and in a downward spiral.

jim@pagosasun.com

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